Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Life in the Data

(ILLUSTRATION: DANIEL STOLLE)

(ILLUSTRATION: DANIEL STOLLE)

Body Language

• March 14, 2013 • 4:00 AM

(ILLUSTRATION: DANIEL STOLLE)

An athlete and gourmand, mugged by reality

Listen to Life in the Data, Episode 2, featuring Daniel Duane:

It all started with 229, 178, and 24.8, back in 2006. Before that, I thought of my health in words: surfer, jogger, farmers’-market shopper, nonsmoker, prudent father of two young girls. Put another way, I thought I lived too sensibly to worry about cholesterol. Then I discovered French cooking and home butchery, started buying whole hogs and keeping all those chops in a freezer. Plus, I turned 38. I’m not sure what it was about 38; maybe the view it provided of 40. I decided to get a checkup.

That first number, 229, put my total cholesterol well above what the doctor said was a preferred ceiling of 200. The second number, 178, pegged my LDL “bad” cholesterol even further above his preferred 130. The final number, 24.8, my body mass index, placed me one french fry short of “overweight.” My doctor’s computer calculated “borderline cardiovascular risk.”

I had read Michael Pollan’s In Defense of FoodI knew that some of the smartest people now doubt the lipid hypothesis, the idea that heart disease begins with saturated fat driving up cholesterol, clogging the arteries. I had also read Gary Taubes’s Good Calories, Bad Caloriesso I knew there was a case to be made that LDL and total cholesterol numbers were crap, because they lumped together multiple subcategories of cholesterol, many of which were cardioprotective. Taubes also convinced me that sugar, not meat, was the real culprit in heart disease. I told my doctor I’d cut back on ice cream.

Two years later, 40 made me look again at 229, 178, and 24.8. They’d all worsened: 253, 198, and 25.1. My BMI scored as “overweight” and my cardiovascular risk ranked “high.” My doctor prescribed cholesterol-lowering statin medication. My cholesterol numbers dropped to 180 and 127, “near or above optimal.”

I returned to words: jogger, farmers’-market shopper, prudent taker of statins.

Then I turned 41 and, by chance, discovered a new set of numbers. Strength- and-conditioning coaches have charts. You look up your age and body weight to find out how much you should be able to bench, squat, and dead lift to consider yourself a badass.

Surfer, jogger, and farmers’-market shopper yielded to “weakling.”

I lifted. My lifting numbers rose—and I got heavier. That meant a higher BMI. I read that BMI was crap, making zero distinction between muscle and fat. Obese guy, buff guy—same BMI.

I kept lifting. Then progress stalled on my numbers. I read around: Muscles get stronger if you lift hard enough to tear them down and then rest enough for them to grow back stronger. A British study said statins undermine muscle recovery after exercise. I learned more: statins do lower cholesterol, but no study of statins had ever found a truly meaningful benefit to people who have never had a heart attack. (Weird, but true.) Countless studies have shown that indicators measured through words— exercise (surfer, jogger), diet (farmers’-market shopper)—do dramatically lower the likelihood of that first heart attack, regardless of cholesterol.

I quit statins and began chugging raw milk. My lifting numbers climbed.

I heard about a new test called the Vertical Auto Profile, discriminating among all those cholesterol subcategories, the ones lumped together in conventional LDL testing. I signed up, certain that my subcategories would turn out great, reconciling my linguistic and numerical identities.

The VAP doctor, looking at my results: “This is pretty much a D minus. Do men in your family die of strokes in their 40s?” They do not. I did not go back on statins.

When I stopped weight lifting and took up triathlons and lost 28 pounds, I told myself that it honestly had nothing to do with cholesterol, just a new athletic challenge. When I eliminated dairy and cut back on steaks, I told myself triathletes do better on carbs.

When I cooked my way through Rick Stein’s Complete Seafood, it was purely because I’d always wanted to master the fish-cookery basics, not because I’d heard about omega-3 fish oils.

Finally, when I revisited my original doctor and scored 194, 138, and 24—“near or above optimal” cholesterol at “normal body weight”—without statins, I resisted feeling good about myself because words matter more than numbers.

Daniel Duane
Daniel Duane is a contributing editor at Men's Journal and a contributing writer at Food & Wine.

More From Daniel Duane

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

December 22 • 2:00 PM

The Paradox of Women’s Sexuality in Breastfeeding Advocacy and Breast Cancer Campaigns

We capitalize on the sexualization of the breast to raise awareness about breast cancer, yet we cringe at the idea of a woman nursing her child.


December 22 • 1:00 PM

Keep That E-Reader Out of Bed and You’ll Feel Better in the Morning

New research finds e-readers, like other light-emitting electronic devices, can disrupt normal sleep patterns.


December 22 • 12:25 PM

Stop Trying to Be the ‘Next Silicon Valley’

American cities often try to mimic their more economically successful counterparts. A new study suggests that it’s time to stop.


December 22 • 12:00 PM

Pill Mills and the Rise of Controlled Substance Use in Medicare

Despite warnings about abuse, Medicare covered more prescriptions for potent controlled substances in 2012 than it did in 2011. The program’s top prescribers often have faced disciplinary action or criminal charges related to their medical practices.


December 22 • 10:00 AM

Economics at the North Pole: Are Santa’s Elves Slaves?

A pair of economists seek to reconcile two conflicting schools of thought in order to predict what sort of environments increase incentives for labor coercion.


December 22 • 8:00 AM

What Influences Whether Owners Pick Up After Their Dogs?

The presence or absence of suitable receptacles for bags is not the whole picture.


December 22 • 7:04 AM

Coming Soon: This Is How Gangs End


December 22 • 6:00 AM

Politicians Gonna Politic

Is there something to the idea that a politician who no longer faces re-election is free to pursue new policy solutions without needing to kowtow to special interests?


December 20 • 10:28 AM

Flare-Ups

Are my emotions making me ill?


December 19 • 4:00 PM

How a Drug Policy Reform Organization Thinks of the Children

This valuable, newly updated resource for parents is based in the real world.


December 19 • 2:00 PM

Where Did the Ouija Board Come From?

It wasn’t just a toy.


December 19 • 12:00 PM

Social Scientists Can Do More to Eradicate Racial Oppression

Using our knowledge of social systems, all social scientists—black or white, race scholar or not—have an opportunity to challenge white privilege.


December 19 • 10:17 AM

How Scientists Contribute to Bad Science Reporting

By not taking university press officers and research press releases seriously, scientists are often complicit in the media falsehoods they so often deride.


December 19 • 10:00 AM

Pentecostalism in West Africa: A Boon or Barrier to Disease?

How has Ghana stayed Ebola-free despite being at high risk for infection? A look at their American-style Pentecostalism, a religion that threatens to do more harm than good.


December 19 • 8:00 AM

Don’t Text and Drive—Especially If You’re Old

A new study shows that texting while driving becomes even more dangerous with age.


December 19 • 6:12 AM

All That ‘Call of Duty’ With Your Friends Has Not Made You a More Violent Person

But all that solo Call of Duty has.


December 19 • 4:00 AM

Food for Thought: WIC Works

New research finds participation in the federal WIC program, which subsidizes healthy foods for young children, is linked with stronger cognitive development and higher test scores.


December 18 • 4:00 PM

How I Navigated Life as a Newly Sober Mom

Saying “no” to my kids was harder than saying “no” to alcohol. But for their sake and mine, I had to learn to put myself first sometimes.


December 18 • 2:00 PM

Women in Apocalyptic Fiction Shaving Their Armpits

Because our interest in realism apparently only goes so far.


December 18 • 12:00 PM

The Paradox of Choice, 10 Years Later

Paul Hiebert talks to psychologist Barry Schwartz about how modern trends—social media, FOMO, customer review sites—fit in with arguments he made a decade ago in his highly influential book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less.


December 18 • 10:00 AM

What It’s Like to Spend a Few Hours in the Church of Scientology

Wrestling with thetans, attempting to unlock a memory bank, and a personality test seemingly aimed at people with depression. This is Scientology’s “dissemination drill” for potential new members.


December 18 • 8:00 AM

Gendering #BlackLivesMatter: A Feminist Perspective

Black men are stereotyped as violent, while black women are rendered invisible. Here’s why the gendering of black lives matters.


December 18 • 7:06 AM

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.


December 18 • 6:00 AM

The Very Weak and Complicated Links Between Mental Illness and Gun Violence

Vanderbilt University’s Jonathan Metzl and Kenneth MacLeish address our anxieties and correct our assumptions.


December 18 • 4:00 AM

Should Movies Be Rated RD for Reckless Driving?

A new study finds a link between watching films featuring reckless driving and engaging in similar behavior years later.


Follow us


Stop Trying to Be the ‘Next Silicon Valley’

American cities often try to mimic their more economically successful counterparts. A new study suggests that it's time to stop.

Don’t Text and Drive—Especially If You’re Old

A new study shows that texting while driving becomes even more dangerous with age.

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.